Ald. Willie Cochran (20) reluctantly pled guilty Thursday to one count of wire fraud, telling U.S. District Court Judge Jorge Alonso that he deposited a $2,000 check into a bank account he opened to fund charitable events in his South Side ward and took out $489 in cash at an Indiana casino.
Cochran, 66, a former police officer, is the 30th Chicago alderman to be convicted of corruption since 1973 as well as the third alderman of the 20th Ward to plead guilty after being charged with crimes.
Cochran’s conviction removes him from the City Council under state law. After deciding not to run for re-election while under indictment, he will be replaced by Nicole Johnson or Jeanette Taylor, who are set to face off in the April 2 runoff.
Cochran is set to be sentenced June 20. Under sentencing guidelines laid out by Alonso and agreed to by Cochran, the former alderman could face between a year and a year and a half in prison.
Had Cochran been convicted on all the counts he faced, he could have been sentenced to 10 years.
Cochran stumbled several times while Alonso asked him routine questions as part of the plea hearing. Cochran said he had taken medication for anxiety and his “health could be better” when quizzed by the judge.
The agreement the alderman reached with the U.S. Attorney’s Office nearly derailed during Thursday morning’s hearing, when Alonso asked if Cochran admitted that he had participated in a scheme to defraud donors to the 20th Ward Activities Fund, a charity he set up, between 2010-14.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Heather McShain laid out a series of events that began when an unnamed donor, identified in court as individual I, gave Cochran $2,000 for the activities fund, which the alderman said would fund back-to-school picnics, holiday parties and other community events.
Cochran deposited that check into the activity fund’s bank account. But then he withdrew $489 at a casino for his personal use, McShain said.
Alonso asked Cochran whether that was accurate.
The hearing ground to a halt after Cochran responded, “for the most part.”
When the judge asked Cochran to clarify what part of McShain’s statement was not accurate, his attorney, Christopher Grohman, asked for a recess. Alonso could have rejected the agreement if he was dissatisfied with Cochran’s admission of guilt.
When the hearing resumed more than 20 minutes later, Alonso said he wanted to hear from Cochran directly — noting the “circuitous route” the case has taken since Cochran was indicted during the Dec. 14, 2017 City Council meeting on 15 counts of wire fraud, bribery and extortion.
Prosecutors said he took $25,000 to support a gambling habit and $5,000 to pay his daughter’s college tuition from a 20th Ward fund he set up to help kids and other local residents. Cochran also shook down a lawyer for $1,500 and a local liquor store owner for $3,000 in exchange for helping them in the ward, prosecutors said.
As alderman, Cochran earned $116,208 annually in addition to his $60,280 yearly police pension, records show.
In November, Cochran rejected a plea agreement that would have required him to plead guilty to one count of wire fraud — a deal substantially similar to the one finalized Thursday.
At the time, the indicted alderman said he “could not stomach” admitting that he defrauded donors to the activity fund, Grohman said.
After another recess, Cochran returned to read a prepared statement in front of the judge that sought to clarify that he had not personally solicited the donation from Individual I.
“Does that cover it?” Cochran asked Alonso.
The judge agreed, and the hearing ended shortly afterward.
Cochran and his attorney declined to speak with reporters after the hearing, instead releasing a statement saying that the now-former alderman was gratified that all of the counts of bribery and extortion had been dismissed.
“Cochran has always steadfastly denied taking any bribes and continues to do so,” according to the statement.
However, Cochran admitted taking $14,285 from that fund for his own personal benefit. The statement said he “looks forward to repaying the $14,000 in monies” and notes that he paid taxes on that income. “Alderman Cochran looks forward to putting this saga behind him, and moving forward by focusing on his family and continuing to serve his community.”